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A 100% renewable energy future

A PES exclusive from Steve Sawyer, GWEC Secretary General. This is his perspective on the options for a world using 100% renewable energy, based on research and years of experience in our industry.

Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, and the early emergence of commercial wind turbines, solar hot water heaters, and the first solar PV panels, there has been speculation about what it would take to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

As far back as 1975 Danish physicist Bent Sørensen published a paper looking at a 100% renewable energy system for Denmark1. The visionary Dr. Amory Lovins came up with the term ‘soft energy path’ in 1976 to describe a future where energy efficiency and renewables gradually replace a centralized energy system based on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

After the emergence of the threat of human-induced climate change in the late 1980s, the discussion got a bit more serious. Both solar and wind technologies had progressed somewhat during the intervening decade and a half, but were still expensive and small. The first fossil fuel free energy scenario was published by Greenpeace and the Stockholm Environmental Institute in 19932.

But not even the most enthusiastic advocates of renewables would have imagined the rapid progress that we are seeing today. The spectacular growth of wind and solar in particular has been fuelled by rapid technology advances and dramatic cost reductions, both of which seem to be accelerating.

Mark Jacobsen of Stanford’s 100% renewable3 work and the fierce reaction4 to it on thinly disguised ideological grounds is just one example of rapidly escalating struggle for hearts and minds over this subject. The opposition from critics is getting shriller and weaker with each passing encounter, as the future for both nuclear and CCS gets bleaker by the day.

At the end of the day, 100% renewable energy is inevitable, simply because everything else is not (renewable). The relevant question is whether we can do it quickly enough to save the climate, and whether we meet our climate goals with 100% RE or with a combination of RE and other ‘zero-emitting’ technologies, should they emerge. Lest we forget, energy isn’t the whole picture – we need to deal with agriculture, deforestation, chemicals, etc. But if we don’t meet the Paris targets, then all bets will be off in the next generation or two and the question will be largely irrelevant.

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